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Stonington — One team inevitably scores more goals, but everyone wins when Special Olympics athletes team up with partners to play soccer.
Team Connecticut, the state's Special Olympics unified soccer team, scrimmaged Saturday with local players at the Stonington Community Center (COMO) field on Cutler Street. High school-age girls and boys with and without intellectual disabilities dribbled the ball up and down the field as coach Ben Trowbridge shouted instruction and encouragement. The "thwack" of sneaker contacting soccer ball intermingled with laughter, the whir of parents' cameras and the occasional bark of a dog.
The unified team is practicing for the USA Games, which will be held in Princeton, N.J., in June. Connecticut will be sending 13 teams to compete in various events at the games.
Oliver Croxford-Brock, 15, of Danbury could not stop smiling after his performance on the COMO field.
"I scored all the goals, four of them," he said. "I like soccer, and coach Ben makes it fun."
The athletes take the game seriously, playing five on five with a regulation ball on a smaller-than-regulation field.
More important, they learn from each other and enjoy themselves.
"It's all about fun and not much about winning," said Thomas Maxwell O'Neill, 19, of Madison, who had one assist for the day. "There's very good sportsmanship in this game."
Sports writer Mike Lupica, a fan of Special Olympics, has called unified sports "one of the biggest social experiments of our time," said Kate Careb, vice president of advancement at Special Olympics Connecticut.
"The best part of unified sports at this age is that when you have this camaraderie on the sports field, it carries over to the school, to the cafeteria," said Careb, of Stonington. "The kids with the disabilities are no longer sitting alone."
Careb has involved most of her family in unified sports, and they're happy to participate. Her teenage daughters, Hannah and Lily, are non-disabled partners on the soccer team. Her brother showed up at the scrimmage to take photographs, and her parents supervised the team's new mascots, Careb's 11-week-old Havanese poodle puppies, Jax and Oscar.
"It makes me really happy to be here," said Lily Careb, 14. "I'd much rather be on a team of people who are doing it for fun rather than competing."
"The first time I was skeptical," said Hannah Careb, 16. "The second time I was excited. I couldn't wait."
The Careb girls say they are not accomplished soccer players and have learned a lot from the Special Olympics athletes.
"It gives everyone a chance to play," said Shane Collins, 19, whose twin brother, Casey also plays on the team. "It gives openings for people who maybe wouldn't make a school team or town team."
Laura Bembenek of Putnam said soccer practice is the only day she doesn't have to fight to get her son, 18-year-old Eric, out of bed.
"I want to stay in bed, but when I come here, it's like, 'Let's go!'" Eric Bembenek said.
He played on the town soccer team, his mother said, but the coaching staff didn't know how to work with him. "They'll tell you to do three things," she said. "He can't process it."
Team members said Trowbridge uses humor to get his message across and to make them work hard on the field. Trowbridge played as a unified partner for 12 years before he started coaching. He said in the beginning, he was amazed at the skill and speed of the athletes.
Like nearly everybody else on the field Saturday, he used the "F" word to describe unified soccer. "It's fun to see them improving and to see the partners learning from the athletes," he said.
Susan Gabrielson of Mystic has donated to various Special Olympics events and said she will be a sponsor of the Connecticut Night party at the USA games in Princeton, where both her father and brother attended college.
"I always feel it's important to give," Gabrielson said. "But I'll tell you, I get as much out of it as the athletes do. They're so loving and appreciative and they'll throw their arms around you. There's no inhibitions."
Before his players left the field Saturday, Trowbridge gathered them at the net for a team photo, then asked them to formed a circle for a new team cheer.
They threw their hands in the middle and chanted, "Team Connecticut Fun!"